Food Glorious Food!

In the past week or so, food and menus have been much in the news. The most recent being the menu which has been planned for the banquet that the President of India is hosting tonight for American President Donald Trump and his delegation who are visiting India. And then, there was the news about the Historical Gastronomica event that the National Museum in New Delhi is hosting. This event offered an Indus Valley dining experience through a “specially crafted menu that strictly includes ingredients identified by archaeologists and researchers from sites of the Indus-Saraswati civilization.” The latter event has been in the news because of the controversy over whether the people of that place and time ate ‘non vegetarian’ food or not. The controversy has generated many articles referring to the works of scholars in this area.

One of the food historians referred is K.T. Achaya and his auIMG-20200225-WA0000.jpgthoritative volume on the history of Indian food titled Indian Food: A Historical Companion. This led me to my bookshelf to pull out another book by this renowned authority on Indian food. This one, titled A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food followed his earlier ones. In this he attempts to bring together, in alphabetical order, material from his vast work on the subject. The book draws upon historical writing, archaeology, botany, genetics and ancient literature in Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil and Kannada to trace the gastronomic history and food ethos of India. The entries cover a wide range including recipes; narratives of visitors to India, starting with the Greeks in the fourth century; the etymological evolution of certain words, and the close links of food with ancient health systems such as Ayurveda. While this is a valuable scholarly work with meticulous and voluminous referencing, it is simply written, with a delightful menu–from A to Z–that one can dip into, and savour according to one’s own taste and appetite.

For me every entry is fascinating. For today I will share an excerpt about two elements that are the starting point of a menu and a meal—Guest and Host!

‘Guests had an honoured place in Vedic society, ranking only below the father, mother and guru. On arrival, a guest was ceremoniously received, given water to wash his hands and feet, and offered the ambrosial beverage madhuparka. In early Vedic times, if the guest was an honoured Brahmin or a member of royalty, a large bull or goat would be sacrificed in his honour, even if the guest was a vegetarian. Later this ritual became symbolic, and the guest was given a knife in token of the sacrifice, which he returned after a prayer. During the meal, the host had to be solicitous, either eating later, or finishing his own meal quickly, so as to rise early and look after his guests.

In the Manava Dharmashastra (Manusmriti) a host is exhorted in these terms: Let him, being pure and attentive, place on the ground the seasoning for the rice, such as broth and pot herbs, sweet and sour honey, as well as various kinds of hard foods that require mastication, and soft food, roots, fruits, and savoury and fragrant drinks. All these he shall present, and being pure and attentive, successively invite them to partake of each, proclaiming its qualities: cause them to partake gradually and slowly of each, and repeatedly urge them to eat by offering the food and extolling its qualities.

All the food shall be very hot and the guests shall eat in silence. Having addressed them with the question: Have you dined well? Let him give them water to sip, and bid farewell to them with the words: Now rest.’

(A Historical Dictionary of India Food K.T.Achaya (pp 96)

And so in India–Atithi Devo Bhava–The guest is God!

–Mamata

Food Spy

It is said that America is a country of immigrants. Over the centuries people from all continents made their way to the ‘promised land’ and made it their home. Interestingly, a lot of the food that is today so much a part of the American diet, is also part of another immigration story. Quinoa, kale, avocado, nectarines, soya beans; even pineapples, oranges and lemons—just about 150 years ago, these were unseen and unheard of in America. Many of these were introduced to the country by a single man, David Fairchild, who called himself an agricultural explorer.

David Fairchild grew up in Kansas at the end of the 19th century, a time when the diet of his countrymen was made up primarily of bland meat, potatoes and cheese, and excluded vegetables and fruit. Fairchild was no gourmet himself, but he loved plants, and he loved travel, and he found a way to combine both into a job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the age of 22, he created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the USDA, and for the next 37 years, he travelled the world, visiting every continent except Antarctica, in search of useful plants to bring back to America. When he started out in his new job, with little knowledge or knowhow, he began by stealing seeds, but over time he learnt other strategies like talking to the local people, visiting local markets and observing what people were growing and eating. This also earned him the sobriquet of Food Spy!

With a combination of strategies, and often at the risk of his own life, Fairchild managed to send back seeds or cuttings of over 200,000 kinds of fruits, vegetable and grains. His department, the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, researched these and distributed new crops to farmers around the states.

It was not an easy process, introducing new food crops. Farmers did not like to take risks, the general public was suspicious of new foods and fearful that the overseas immigrants would bring in tropical disease and insects. Even today there is a Quarantine Law which forbids anyone from bringing in agricultural material into the US. Uphill task though it was, Fairchild did succeed to a large extent, and managed to introduce mangoes, quinoa, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboo, and even the flowering Japanese cherry trees that blossom all over Washington D.C. each spring.

In 1904 Fairchild was invited to speak at the National Geographic Society where he met the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell who was the Society’s second president; years later Fairchild married Bell’s daughter.

Last week the National Geographic Society hosted a curated dinner where the menu featured some of the many foods—avocados, dates, and other that David Fairchild brought to the United States more than 100 years ago, thus changing the country’s culinary palate.

The story of this amazing food traveller is told in a book by Daniel Stone titled The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.

 —Mamata

 

One Man’s Meat….

‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’. This expression is often used when two people disagree over something, especially food. Believed to have been coined by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius in the first century BC, the expression is a pithy reflection of how deeply food tastes and taboos are ingrained in every culture (and indeed every family). What is tasty and what is not; what is healthy and what is harmful; what is culturally acceptable and what is not…the history of food and cultures has laid down norms since time immemorial.

I was reminded of this when I read about the Disgusting Food Museum which opened recently in the city of Malmo in Sweden. The museum features 80 dishes from around the world that, for one reason or another, have earned the epithet of being “disgusting.” Among these are Surströmming: fermented herring from Sweden; Cuy: roasted guinea pigs from Peru; Casu marzu: maggot-infested cheese from Sardinia; Mouse wine from China; Hákarl: well-aged shark from Iceland, and Durian: the infamously stinky fruit from Thailand.

The purpose of the museum is not so much to sensationalize the weird and the exotic, but rather to sensitize to the fact that food-related notions are subjective. What is delicious to one person can be revolting to another. The Museum invites visitors to explore the world of food and challenge their notions of what is and what isn’t edible.

This made me think about the many examples of these notions that are so intrinsically entwined with our food and food habits. In a country as diverse as India, the notions are as diverse as the nation; the state, the region, religion, schools of health (from hot and cold foods in Ayurveda to mutually incompatible foods in other systems), and above all family traditions and cuisines—all these combine to define what kind of food each one of us considers suitable, tasty and palatable.

This diversity presented a challenge when I had the opportunity to be a part of an exercise to develop national textbooks for primary students. One of the objectives was to develop lessons that celebrated the richness of diversity, especially food. How to do this led to numerous debates within the team itself—to talk about the fried caterpillar larvae as a delicacy in the Northeast of India, to talk about “non-vegetarian” food, even to talk about the different cooking oils used in different parts of the country? And how to present these in a manner that evokes not disgust and shutting out of ‘what is different’ but rather curiosity and openness about the richness of cuisines and cultures.

When I was in school we did not have too many such theoretical lessons, but every recess time was a live lesson. It was food that connected us—lunch boxes were opened, food was shared and tasted, and new tastes were cultivated; mothers exchanged recipes, and exploring and discovering different food that you and your friends ate was an everyday adventure, not part of a visit to a food museum!

Today with the homogenization of food (I suspect many lunch boxes contain the ubiquitous Maggi and Lays) we are losing such a rich link. Even more worrying is the fact that food is being used to create boundaries rather than bonds. The old Lucretius expression is, sadly, more true than ever before. It is time to remember another adage “Sharing a meal is the best way to turn strangers into friends.”

–Mamata